Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Axis Powers Hetalia: Happy Inside

Yes, yes, I know this blog is for talking about depressing media, and Axis Powers Hetalia is quite possibly the silliest piece of work to come out of anywhere since Kekko Kamen, John Waters films and the Mr Gum novels but there's a reason it's here. And that reason is that the controversy surrounding Hetalia's existence and popularity is depressing enough to cover it, as well as the apparent ignorance of some of its fans towards real life atrocities. It's incredibly depressing, though not the way I usually like. In as much as I think people who refer to 'stupid weeaboos' and 'fanbrats' are as bad as the people who they complain against (we were all young and made stupid decisions once upon a time) some of the things that have been said or done by Hetalia fans cross a line even for me.

But that's no reason to blame the work itself, rather I find the merit of a work lies in the work it inspires, and Hetalia inspires some really lovely work. I've been reading a lot of fanfiction and doujinshi lately (feeling sick and tired lately, trying to distract myself while stuck at home) and the quality of the stuff I've found is quite astounding. This doujinshi in particular (http://animoobs.tumblr.com/post/6166685477/dolfin-gerita) about a steady natural erosion overwhelming Italy and Germany taking it very badly is legitimately heartbreaking (as the comments will attest to) and the work of RobinRocks really deserves to be published if it was at all possible.

I don't say this lightly, I've been involved in fandom for donkey's years and I was spoiled early on by Gundam Wing fanworks. The work of Lorena of Furor Scribendi occupies a large part of my e-Reader over ten years since I first read 'Chiaroscuro'. I'm very picky about what I watch, even more about the fanwork I read and it takes quite a bit to impress me enough to spend a full day occupied with one product. However, Hetalia? Gushgushgushgushgush.

Hetalia is a history buff's dream, even moreso if you're a culture nut. Wars are ridiculously rendered as smacking another nation on the head with a stick,Italy's occupation during the Middle Ages are represented by the other countries playing football with the two provinces and it's all very tongue-in-cheek. The English dub of the anime takes it even further. Whereas the Japanese version was excellent, the nation's various accents couldn't be rendered properly for a foreign audience. The English is full of odd accents (Finland's is particularly spot on) and below-the-belt in jokes. Any and every stereotype is referenced and mercilessly skewered, from France's pervertedness to America's ignorance. No more is this more evident than the episode where everyone tries to do some shopping and their respective stereotypes make it very difficult:


For all its silliness, when it does get serious it can be very touching and heartwarming, particularly in special editions like the Christmas special when all the countries co-operate to prevent a disaster. And of course not everything about it is always correct or even sensitive, but the creator is just one guy and he gives his own country one of the worst skewering. And its fans are capable of some really awful things, but that's true of just about everything. The Bible inspires the kind of people that picket the funerals of AIDS victims, but without it there would be no Sistine Chapel, Pieta or indeed the entire Renaissance. Islam has been cited as the reason behind 9/11 and the London bombings, but without it we'd have no calligraphy or decorative glasswork.

In fact, if I was to compare Hetalia to anything, it would be to the film 'Baraka'. Baraka is a beautiful celebration of world culture, a hell of a lot more po-faced than Hetalia but equally as joyful. The first section of the film is dedicated to showing how different countries show their faith, from Sufi dancers in Turkey to monkey chanting in Bali and Jain priests praying in India. Also, both Hetalia and Baraka are not seen by the people who should really check them out, based on fan dumb or obscurity.

Recently, I sat some friends of mine down to watch Hetalia, which they were skeptical about given the awful things they'd heard about it. By the time they left, they agreed it was a good series. I've not been able to show them Baraka, but if you're reading this blog you need to check them both out. If you don't like either, take it up with me!

Here's a trailer to help you along:


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shigurui: Seven showers a day and still not clean....

There's no way to watch this series or read this manga without being immediatly confronted with how different Japanese culture, and Asian culture as a whole, is to Western culture, particularly the Christian way of life that permeats most of Europe and the USA. I don't know if the author was trying to give an accurate representation of how crazy it really was (from a baka gaijin's point of view) or if he was trying to point out the fallacies in the bushido way of life and how destructive and wasteful it could really be. Either way, it's a hell of a read. And not for the squeamish.

The story starts with the daimyo, or clan lord, organizing a tournament for samurai to fight each other with steel swords rather than the wooden boken they should have been using, mainly because this guy is a bloodthirsty creep who enjoys watching people die. His vassal objects, but ultimately does nothing to stop him, and that's the first instance of a hole being poked in the samurai way, whether deliberate or not. Fealty to your lord trumps common sense, and in this case it was common sense that could have saved a lot of lives. This daimyo is also shown to kill servants on a recreational basis. Anyway, the tourney is an opportunity for two old enemies to confront each other, despite both being crippled.

The cripple in the blue corner is Gennosuke Fujiki, a very traditionally-minded samurai
who's missing an arm. To compensate, he's trained his back muscles to put the extra strength into the arm he still has and therefore is allowed to compete. He's supported by Mie Iwamoto, the daughter of his master.

The cripple in the red corner is Seigen Irako,a less traditional samurai who violated several of

the bushido rules and was punished for it by having his eyes sliced. Yep, he's a blind samurai. He also walks with a limp because of a mysterious wound in his foot, later revealed to have been self-inflicted to enable a counter attack to a battle move thought to be unstoppable. He's supported by Lady Oku, the former mistress of the master who blinded him and now his mistress. So that's what's driving this story, right? He screwed around with his master's girl and he paid the price, right? That's only half the story. Whoo boy....

The rest of the story is told in flashback. We see Seigen attempt to leave his beginnings as the son of a syphilis-ridden prostitute behind by joining the Kogan-Ryuu school to learn the unbeatable technique, Nagare Boshi (Shooting Star). Gennosuke is already a student there himself, and the two are as different as night and day. Seigen neglects his practice to sleep around with random women and drink, relying on his natural talent to see him through, whereas Gennosuke trains so fervently that it's almost a mental disorder. Their teacher, Gonzaemon, is a big hulk (sometimes in flashes of metaphor, pictured as an ox) who wields a giant wooden practice sword as if it was a weapon and in his hands, it is. He also has a Chelsea grin that's disgustingly shown as being inflicted by his master.

And then we meet the master of this school, Kogan Iwamoto.
This guy is, in purely technical terms, a fucking headcase. He's clearly suffering from either Alzheimer's or Dementia because the things he does are pure mental and a definite reason to get him removed from any seat of power, but he is of course the master and that's all that's needed for people to get away with just about anything in this story. Let's catalogue his misdemeanours, shall we?

* Splitting his second-in-command's face open over a mild slight.

* Having his mistress' two fiancees killed and having the woman herself ostracized from the community.

* Molesting his only daughter and ordering his students to hold her down so she can be forcefully impregnated.

* Driving his wife to suicide.

* Ordering his second to kill his fiancee back home so that he wouldn't have attachments.

The man is a monster, but therein lies the problem people have when reading Shigurui. Whose side are we meant to be on? Kogan blinds Seigen after Seigen offers Lady Iku some compassion and when Irako trains up to counter the Nagare Boshi, he comes back and kills Kogan, and all of his students except for Gennosuke to wipe the technique from the world. Sounds reasonable. Then Mie recruits Gennosuke to take revenge for her. Wait, what? This is the man who ordered her rape, who drove her to anorexia, who drove her mother to suicide. Why does she want him avenged? They're also partially taking revenge for the other students and for Gonzaemon, although Gonzaemon killed the only morally upright person in this story, a guy who was only in the manga for five panels, because he was in the way.

I'm guessing it must be a cultural thing and the author is making a comment on how crazy the situation is too, because even from a Japanese perspective I can't exactly see Gennosuke as a hero and Seigen as a villain, but that's how they've been painted. Mie is very sympathetic but her motives are astounding, and although filial piety was highly regarded at the time the original story was circulating it's hard to imagine wanting to take revenge for such a monster. It doesn't help that Gennosuke is a total cold fish, bordering on autistic spectrum. Seigen is more charismatic and he's shown doing good things along with the bad, treating the battered Iku with great gentleness and saving a starving child, but he killed his master and therefore must die.

All the death in this series (and it's a real bloodbath) is shown not just in detail, but anatomical detail. The creator, Takayuki Yamaguchi, draws with medical knowledge and in such detail that I'm convinced he's not right in the head. He does x-ray shots of his characters to show the damage they're inflicting on each other and the cross-hatching and shade work puts a lot of Western comic art to shame.

Also, the comic is quite educational. I learned things about the samurai way of life I never knew before, and some things were things I didn't want to know. For instance, if a samurai thought he might be ordered to commit seppuku by his lord in the morning, he'd take an arrowroot solution to clear out his bowels so they wouldn't smell bad when he cut through them. Though I think at that stage it wouldn't really matter, it was to avoid offending the lord who ordered the suicide, but again at that stage I'd be happy enough to defile the nostrils of a guy who just ordered me to cut myself open.

Anyway, it's worth a read. Go read it, or watch it. Just do something!